The San Francisco 49ers of the late 1980s were a nearly unstoppable force, boasting a slew of athletes that read like a Hall of Fame induction pamphlet. But in the shadows stood a core group of linemen that proved to be the cornerstone of the franchise. One of those linemen was a nose tackle named Michael Carter. As both an Olympian and an NFL player, he was quite the enigma. This is his story.
Michael D'Andrea Carter was born on October 29, 1960 in Dallas, Texas. Like many boys in his neighborhood, he was drawn to football and the pedestal that his home state held it to. Looking to stay in shape for the football season, he picked up track and field, quickly becoming adept at the shot put.
He became such a force at the shot put that he set the national high school record in the 1979 Golden West Invitational with 81 feet three-and-a-half inches. No high school athlete has come within two feet of this incredible achievement since.
In part because of his prolificity in track and field, Michael Carter earned a scholarship to nearby Southern Methodist University. At the time, SMU was a burgeoning powerhouse on the gridiron that called the venerable Texas Stadium "home". Playing on the same turf where the pros played was enticing for Carter and he fit in seamlessly with the Mustangs, winning back-to-back SWC titles in 1981 and 1982.
While Carter dominated on the gridiron, he somehow found the time to dominate in the shot put. In four years with the program, he won the SWC title three times and seven national titles (four indoor and three outdoor). After earning all-SWC honors as a senior in 1983, Michael Carter was drafted by the 49ers in the fifth round of the NFL Draft. But first, he had one more thing to attend to.
A Whirlwind Year
Before Michael Carter could begin his career as a football player, he had to compete in the Los Angeles Olympics. He did well. Really well. Well enough to throw the shot put 21' 9" and earn the silver medal in the shot put, losing only to Alessandro Andrei of Italy for gold after he edged out Carter by just 17 inches. While he was disappointed that he didn't win the gold medal, Michael Carter looked forward to proving himself in the 49ers' training camp as soon as the Summer Games concluded.
When Carter checked in to the 49ers' training camp, he had a steep hill to climb. Their defensive line was stacked with talented veterans led by Fred Dean, Jim Stuckey, Manu Tuiasosopo and Dwaine Board. But those players were getting older and none were true nose tackles. As a result, Michael Carter got a lot of reps with the first team and proved to be a valuable backup on a veteran-laden squad.
Still, he didn't get his first career sack until Week Six in New York, sacking Phil Simms for all of Big Blue Nation to see. He seemed to be attracted to the spotlight because the next time he recorded a sack was three weeks later in Los Angeles when he wreaked havoc on the Rams' offensive line by recording two sacks in a 33-0 trouncing. By the time they reached the playoffs, the 49ers were 15-1 and Michael Carter had recorded four sacks.
Growing up in Texas, it had long been Michael Carter's dream to win the Super Bowl. Luckily for him, he was surrounded by the best team in the NFL. After vanquishing the Giants in the first round, the 49ers demolished the Chicago Bears and their league-leading defense 23-0. Carter was phenomenal in that game, twice recording a sack as the team rampaged its way to the Super Bowl in nearby Palo Alto. Going up against Dan Marino was never easy, but the 49ers devised a way to maintain him and his high-flying antics just enough to win 38-16, putting a big exclamation point to a whirlwind of a rookie year for Michael Carter. In a span of just five months, he won the silver medal in the Olympics and the Super Bowl.
Riding high from arguably one of the greatest individual athletic years ever, Michael Carter took things up a notch in 1985. While he never started a game in his promising rookie campaign, he started most of the games in his sophomore year. From his nose tackle position, he recorded seven sacks and was invited to his first Pro Bowl. Even though the 49ers failed to defend their Super Bowl title, it was a successful year for Carter.
The 1986 season was a year of transition for the 49ers as they began to build a defensive line that would dominate the NFL into the 1990s. This was by no means a sign of disrespect for Michael Carter. If anything, he was the cornerstone of one of the best defensive lines in the NFL.
In 1986, the 49ers added Charles Haley and Larry Roberts. By the time San Francisco drafted Danny Stubbs and Pierce Holt two years later, Michael Carter had already earned another Pro Bowl notch on his belt and had even been named an All-Pro in 1987. As the unquestioned leader of the defensive line, Michael Carter was surrounded by elite pass-rushing talent and didn't have to sack the quarterback as much as he had when he was younger. In fact, he had just a single sack in his lone All-Pro season.
Offensively, the 1988 season was a very frustrating year for the 49ers. For much of the year, they were embroiled in one of the hottest quarterback controversies of all time. Week after week, the players in the locker room questioned who would be under center that week. Joe Montana or Steve Young? Steve Young or Joe Montana? The media ate it up and hardly gave the 49ers' defense any mind.
This was a good thing as it took the pressure off of the defense. By season's end, the 49ers' defense ranked second in yards per play and third in rushing yards allowed. By the time the playoffs came around, the 49ers had figured out their quarterback situation and their defense was clicking on all cylinders.
After stifling the Vikings and suffocating the Bears, the 49ers returned to the Super Bowl where they faced off against the red-hot Cincinnati Bengals. That year was a special one for the Bengals as they were led by league MVP quarterback Boomer Esiason and had a terrific running game to balance out a hurry-up offense. But despite the odds, the 49ers were up for the task. Still, Rookie of the Year Ickey Woods was running all over the 49ers in the early stages of the game until Ronnie Lott felled him like a sycamore in the forest.
Though he would physically be just fine, Ickey Woods was never the same after that play and would finish the game with a respectable-but-not-terrific 3.96 average. James Brooks could only do a little better, finishing with an even four yards per carry as the 49ers' defense held the Bengals' mighty offense in check for the rest of the game. For his part, Michael Carter recorded two tackles and a sack.
If it wasn't for Stanford Jennings running back a kickoff 93 yards for a touchdown, the Bengals might have been held without a touchdown the whole game and the 49ers wouldn't have needed a last-minute touchdown drive by Joe Montana. When Montana zipped the game-winner to John Taylor, the 49ers were Super Bowl champions for the third time in their storied history. All thanks to Michael Carter and the magnificent effort that he and his defensive teammates produced on that night in Miami.
For the season, Michael Carter recorded 6.5 sacks while being invited to his third and final Pro Bowl. Times were changing and Michael Carter was getting older. No matter the work, no one's body is designed to survive the grueling cycle of the NFL forever.
The 49ers were flying high after their latest Super Bowl triumph and would repeat the feat the following year. But Michael Carter suffered through an injury-riddled season that year and missed half the regular season.
While he still started most of the games in his final three years, it was clear that his best days were behind him as he only recorded two sacks between those years. After losing to the Cowboys in the NFC Championship Game at Candlestick Park in 1992, Michael Carter retired.
Michael Carter's legacy lives on as his national high school record that he set so many years ago is still sitting untouched. His daughter Michelle has made a name for herself in the shot put too, setting her own national high school record. She even won a pair of indoor national titles and something that her father never won, a gold medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics. But while Michael Carter may be better known for his greatness in track and field, nothing can erase what he did for the 49ers.